Manga Answerman - Can Non-Japanese Comic Creators Call Themselves 'Mangaka'?

by Deb Aoki & Rachel Thorn,

This week's Manga Answerman is slightly different this week – I saw an interesting conversationon Twitter from manga scholar and translator Rachel Thorn. Rachel is a professional translator (her latest translated work is The Poe Clan by Moto Hagio, which is due out in late August 2019 from Fantagraphics) and a college professor at Kyoto Seika University. Rachel's Twitter comments raised an interesting response to this question: If I'm not from Japan and I make manga, can I call myself a “mangaka?”

Here's Thorn's response on Twitter (reprinted with her permission):

Manga is simply the Japanese word for comics, so when speaking Japanese, we use manga regardless of the style or country of origin. But in other languages manga is used to refer to Japanese comics, so calling comics not made originally for the Japanese market manga is silly.

One can note general styles/trends in the comics of various countries, and you can note that an artist's style more closely resembles the mainstream of a different country, but drawing in a style doesn't make the work a thing of that country. One often sees (usually amateur) creators of comics refer to themselves as “mangaka” but to Japanese ears that sounds presumptuous. The term implies that one makes a living making comics and furthermore is a respected professional. Even many professional Japanese cartoonists are reluctant to refer to themselves as mangaka. (They will instead say, “I draw manga.”) Enthusiasm for Japanese comics is great, but abusing the words “manga” and “mangaka” makes one seem pretentious and immature. What's important is the quality of the work, not the terminology.

Translator Peter Durfee added some additional context in reply:

Tacking on some perhaps unneeded detail: translators can be 翻訳者 (hon'yakusha) or 翻訳家 (hon'yakuka). The latter has the 家(-ka) character, which often indicates "a person hailing from a line of ___ artisans" instead of a simple practitioner.

In my experience 翻訳家 (honkyakuka) who go by that name tend to be literary translators whose names go on the covers of the books they help create, while all of us toiling in the 95+% of the actual translation industry trenches are mere 翻訳者(honyakusha).

Thorn agreed, and added:

Yes. I think among most educated Japanese, anyone who puts a 家 (-ka) at the end of their own title had better have the résumé to back it up or else they're in for some side-eye. I have never referred to myself as a 翻訳家 (honyakuka). You can call someone else a ____家 (-ka) all you want, but yourself?

So to sum up, according to people who speak and understand Japanese and are familiar with how Japanese manga artists refer to themselves, “mangaka” is a honorary/exalted title, reserved for people who are recognized, professional masters of the craft, and a title that manga artists, even the most respected and celebrated pro manga artists have a hard time referring to themselves as such.

This is why it sounds odd to people who understand the term “mangaka” in the context of how it's used in Japan to see people who are not professional artists, much less any comics creator of any level or without a list of published works to their name refer to themselves as “mangaka.”

It's kind of like calling yourself “an award-winning creator of universally well-regarded books of highest-level craftsmanship.” It's not only awkward and pretentious, it's just weird to refer to yourself that way, especially for the typical, famously self-effacing-to-a-fault Japanese person. My take on it is you can call yourself whatever you want – whatever makes you happy with how you identify yourself to your audience. Just be aware that given what you've just heard from Thorn and Durfee, know that if and when you ever introduce yourself and your work to a Japanese manga artist, editor, or even manga reader, you might get a raised eyebrow and maybe a puzzled frown or weak smile in return.

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Deb Aoki was the founding editor for Manga, and now writes about manga for Anime News Network and Publishers Weekly. She is also a comics creator/illustrator, and has been a life-long reader of manga (even before it was readily available in English). You can follow her on Twitter at @debaoki.

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